Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut

                                   - a femme fatale to rival Carmen

Born in 1697, the Frenchman Abbé Prévost, Antoine-Francois Prévost d'Exiles, led an extemely colourful life that rivalled that of his characters in his most famous novel, Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731). Manon Lescaut inspired operas by Auber, Massenet, Puccini and, as recently as 1952 by Hans Werner Henze in an updated version he re-named Boulevard Solitude. There are also ballets by Halévy and Kenneth MacMillan. Prévost was by turns, a Jesuit novice, a soldier, a Benedictine monk and a convert to Protestantism.

Between 1728 and 1734 he lived in exile in England and Holland, and was imprisoned for forgery in the former country. Allowed to return to France as a Benedictine monk, he briefly served the Prince de Conti as chaplain until he was compelled to escape abroad again when accused of writing satirical pamphlets. He returned to France in 1742 where he remained until his death in 1763 as a writer, his life complicated by dubious love affairs and debt.
His works included translations of Richardson's novels Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe and the seven volumes of Mémoires et aventures d'un homme de qualité , written during his early exile. In the seventh volume the gentleman of quality of the title receives the confidences of the Chevalier des Grieux, a weak-willed hero who resembles, in many ways, the author. Essentially an adventure story, this classical novel, probably to some extent autobiographical, is full of sensibility and passion. Although intended as a cautionary tale, in the fashion of the time, the book, set in the corrupt Paris of the Regency, has been likened to a Racine tragedy. Its theme is classic: reason vs. emotions; mind vs. heart; and virtue vs. vice; illustrated by the fascination of a young nobleman for a dangerously seductive woman. And in the passionate but fickle Manon, always hankering after the good life at the expense of true affection, Prévost created a full-blooded anti-heroine to rival Prosper Mérimée's Carmen who became the basis for Bizet's celebrated opera. Both women destroy their men and in the end themselves. Yet Des Grieux's weakness is universal and so Prévost manages to arouse a deep sympathy in the reader for this hero or anti-hero.

Prévost presented Manon Lescaut as a story within a story i.e. - the gentleman of quality (probably the author himself as a mature man) on a journey meets a young man (possibly a projection of Prévost in his youth) whom he befriends. The young man proceeds to tell him the tragedy of his life. Thus we see Manon exclusively through her lover eyes - male eyes. In the book, compared with Des Grieux, Manon is much less complicated yet a fascinating and absorbing example of feminine frailty. Her love of pleasure and the good life is her undoing. She is amoral rather immoral. She is headstrong and follows her instincts without thought or hesitation. The pathos in Des Grieux's character is derived from the fact that although he recognises all her flaws, he remains sexually enslaved to her until her dying breath. The novel is essentially a psychological study of Des Grieux. Prévost's portrait is drawn with great insight and sensibility. Consider this passage of self-analysis that he puts into the mouth of his hero. He is reading a letter from Manon in which she tries to excuse her desertion of him for the older wealthier Treasurer-General. -

"I could not describe the state I was in when I read this letter, and to this day I cannot decide what sort of emotions swirled around in my soul. It was one of those unique situations, the like of which has never been experienced before; you cannot explain to others because they have no conception of what is meant, and you cannot unravel them for yourself because, being unique, they have no connection with anything in your memory, nor even with any known feeling at all. And yet, whatever my emotions were, certain is that grief, rage, jealousy and humiliation all had a share in them."

Prévost makes Des Grieux his central character but Massenet and Puccini recognised that for the purposes of their dramas, she had to be elevated to equal importance with her lover (In fact Massenet tended to elevate her higher - Puccini comes closer to Prévost's conception.).

It is interesting to compare how all the composers, librettists, and choreographers who have been drawn to this universal story, have interpreted Prévost's inspiration.

Ian Lace

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: - The UK's Biggest Video Store Concert and Show tickets
Musicians accessories
Click here to visit